Struggling with Speech

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When is it appropriate to place limits on free speech? Never? Sometimes? What about when the KKK burns a cross in front of an African American family’s home? When protestors speak out against restrictive anti-abortion laws? When extremist Evangelical Christians burn the Koran? When Israelis are compared to Nazis and told to “go home” to Europe?

What if these actions occur at a university? Does your answer change? Does it matter if it’s a small, private college or a larger, publicly-funded institution? Does it matter if students are protesting, or professors? How do we reconcile the ideals that have shaped American civil society with the unpleasant reality of American and world history? How do we foster open dialogue and innovation on our campuses while being respectful of differences in opinion, experience, and belief? How do we create safe, challenging spaces for intellectual exploration?

This tension is one that has been recently discussed by Wendy Kaminer in The Atlantic, and by Fred Lukianoff in his New York Times op-ed. Kaminer directs her free-speech ire toward two Jewish alumni of UC Berkeley, who registered complaints of antisemitism with the Department of Education in regard to incidents that took place during last year’s Israel Apartheid Week. Kaminer states that, “investigations of allegedly hateful speech have a chilling effect. They encourage risk-averse college and university administrators to restrict political speech that offends presumptively vulnerable groups.” Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, cites his organization’s recent study that found of 392 campuses surveyed, 65% had codes in place that directly limited an individual’s right to free speech. Says Lukianoff, “[c]olleges and universities are supposed to be bastions of unbridled inquiry and expression, but they probably do as much to repress free speech as any other institution in young people’s lives.”

Are these limits really so horrible? Members of minority communities in the US have felt the sting of discriminatory attitudes, vicious slurs, and hostile environments. Is it wrong to expect that colleges be free of overt bigotry in their classrooms, cafeterias, and dormitories? Kaminer suggests that hateful speech is a far cry from incitement to violence, and that Jewish students at UC Berkeley “predictably compared the offending protests…to the ‘incitement’ and ‘intimidation’ that preceded the Holocaust.” The Jewish community has thousands of years of experience being repressed and reviled; words can and do have a terrifying meaning when one’s communal memory is filled with persecution and pogroms. In the history of the Jews, violent actions have indeed quickly followed hate-filled words.

Now, in an era of often virulent anti-Israelism and deligitimization tactics at universities around the world, Jewish students and academics, like those at UC Berkeley, must struggle with what aspects of these protests cross over into antisemitism, what is fair criticism of Israel and what is filled with hate. When student protestors use the religious and cultural symbols of the Jewish people to delegitimize a sovereign nation, or when professors present one side of the complicated and convoluted history of Israel and its neighbors, should we sit back and do nothing in the name of “free speech?” What are appropriate actions for community members, university administrators, professors, and students to take if issues of bigotry and antisemitism occur on campus? How do we respect and preserve American rights to freedom of speech in the face of intolerance?